Last week’s Aid and International Development Forum Summit (hosted at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, DC)  consisted of two main focuses: Field Operations and Information Communication Technology (ICT) innovation/implementation. 

Representatives from the United Nations, UNICEF, American Red Cross, and private NGOs spoke at length on the increasingly dire straits of disaster victims around the world. Speakers and industry attendees alike placed a heavy emphasis on the latest technologies, demonstrating a number of products for disaster relief. Panels and breakout round-table discussions addressed breakdowns in effective relief, including disconnects from whiteboard to the ground floor, competing solutions reduplicating efforts, and security concerns for relief workers in country. 

What this boils down to for me is that relief efforts designed to be implemented on the ground need to be grounded in realism. Petabyte-level data crunching, EWS (Early Warning System) broadcasts on mobile networks for disaster readiness, and other technologies are excellent solutions to prevent and mitigate damage from disasters. However, in a Third World country with all-too-often fragile/spotty/nonexistent infrastructure, how tenable are these solutions in practice? There is a critical need starting from the planning stage to address areas without reliable power or water; much less cell coverage, high speed data networks, and the like. Mobile phones number approximately 6.8 billion worldwide, but in some areas technology is still limited to land lines, radio, or even word of mouth.  

'Pre-covery' technologies, designed to mitigate disasters, circumvent many of these problems. Suman Biswas, NiyamIT's CEO, gave a presentation showcasing a case study on the Hazus-MH software and its effective implementation to estimate damage and impact in disaster situations. This software is easily implemented well in advance of disasters, facilitating simulation of a number of scenarios to provide a comprehensive picture for creating an action plan.  

In addition to technological challenges, the panels addressed other barriers to effective implementation. If all technological barriers are surpassed, how does a solution interface with the human element of disaster relief? Cultural and gender challenges can severely hamper the adoption of the disaster solution. Is there cultural pushback to technology? Is the local government interested in technology for now, or in a greater investment in infrastructure for the future? With the recent and evolving Ebola crisis, there is a rising sentiment that rather than limiting international assistance to ameliorating the immediate impact of the epidemic, it should be implemented with an eye to shoring up the infrastructure of the host country with longer commitments and weightier investments. 

Training, and the welfare/security of local aid workers was raised as a largely overlooked topic.   The majority of injuries during aid relief efforts are suffered by local staff, who typically lack the specialized training and extensive support networks of foreign workers.  Extensive discussion ensued regarding how local governments, NGOs/companies, and support countries can share this burden to ensure proper training for effective workers in the field. 

Overall, this was a fantastic event that brought together senior officials of intergovernmental agencies, contractors, experts, and members of the public to collaborate and discuss real issues in the field. A note, however in the face of the lofty goals and promises of a better future in ICT implementation and field operations: to drive them from a perspective on the ground. Evaluating the situation from inside the disaster zone first, working closely with local representatives on an equal footing and being sensitive to both technological and human hurdles will provide a solid foundation for success in the utilization of technology for efficacious disaster relief.